Techniques and Tips

The Importance of a Good Photo Reference and What to Avoid

The Importance of a Good Photo Reference and What to Avoid

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Happy New Year everyone! With the beginning of a new year, many of you, including myself, have made a resolution to do more art. I can’t think of a better goal!

I came out of this holiday season exhausted, for I took on a lot of commissions I needed to have completed and shipped out by Christmas. While I love the business, there is one thing that makes that aspect of my job very difficult: the quality of reference photos that people provide me. I realize that most people who aren’t artists don’t understand the importance of a good photo reference. I rarely get the right photos the first time around, and more often than not, have to request better ones. Here is a list of photo reference qualities that you want to avoid.

1. Small image

Often, the photos people send are candid shots, taken just for fun. While these photos have a lot of sentimental value, rarely are they large enough to do a quality rendition, particularly if you’re painting a person’s or pet’s portrait. (I often say, “I’m an artist, not a magician!”) You simply cannot draw what you cannot see. Being able to see all of the small details is what makes you able to accurately obtain a great likeness. If you cannot see the small things that make up the individual, you then have to fake it. This makes it “close” to the person, but that is not good enough. A good portrait must be spot on!

2. Blurry image

Even though someone may give you a photo reference that’s large enough, sometimes the photo is a bit blurred or out of focus. Again, you can’t see the details well enough to capture the likeness, and you cannot draw what you cannot see.

Free Download! How to Draw a Picture from a Photo: A Free Portrait Tutorial

3. Poor lighting

Having a large, clear photo is not all that matters. I’ve received reference photos that have extreme lighting to them, making the highlight areas wash out and the dark areas fill in. These lighting problems hide the very important details that you need.

4. The colors are too pale

Sometimes a photo reference will have a dull color, making a good likeness hard to achieve. Every person and every animal has colors that are unique to them and only them. To draw a person or a pet with colors that don’t match them naturally alters how they look. Even a great likeness will appear “off” if the color is not exact to them.

5. The colors are too intense

This is one of my pet peeves. Often photos can be altered to enhance the colors, often making them appear unrealistic. I hate it when I see a butterfly in a photo whose colors have been altered away from its natural beauty. (A purple monarch, really?) People and animals are the same. Altering the colors by making them more red, or too yellow, ruins the reality of the subject.

6. Outdoor lighting and shadows

I have done some cool portraits of people outdoors. But, often there are a lot of shadows involved. These shadows should be used as a part of the story being told by your art. This drawing of my son in the woods (above) is a good example of using shadows for interest. Sometimes people will give me a photo reference similar to this, but they want a traditional portrait. My answer to that is, “Get me a different photo.” It’s often very difficult to try to remove unnecessary shadows in your work as you go, for shadows often distort the details.

7. Printed copies

Often in my classes, people will bring in great photo references. However, they have printed them out from their computers and lost some of the clarity. ALWAYS, have the photo printed out as an actual photograph. That way the colors stay true and the details are crisp and easier to see.

8. Too many subjects

People will often send me a group photo, and only want one of the people drawn. This can work, but only if the other subjects are not altering the look of the desired subject. For instance, is there a shadow of the person next to them altering the lighting? Or, are the people next to them cutting off vital info, like their hair and ears? Look closely, before you say yes to this!

9. Combining photos that conflict

If someone wants a group shot, it isn’t always necessary that everyone is in the same photo. Combining photos, however, isn’t easy. When choosing reference photos to combine, you must address the lighting. You can’t put two or three people together in one drawing if the lighting is different for each one (for instance, one lit from the right, one lit from the left). Be sure to have neutral lighting that is not in conflict before you begin. I’ve seen some beautiful portraits that are very well rendered, but the shadows are in conflict, making the subjects look disconnected. Epic fail!

10. Altering photo references

Often, a person will give me an unflattering reference photo, then tell me everything they want me to correct. For instance, one time I was given photos for an oil painting. The photos were great! Clear and large. However, I needed to add eyeglasses to one subject, (they did provide a photo of them, but they were from a different angle!) They wanted me to remove some of the wrinkles and fullness of a double chin. (Yes, become a plastic surgeon!) They also wanted the color of one sweater changed from red to blue, and their hair needed to change color, for they had gone gray. I also had to remove and add jewelry (again from different photos) and take away a birthmark. They also wanted a scene behind them, depicting a trip they had taken with palm trees and water. I was able to pull this off and they loved it, but each alteration was an additional charge. I ended up charging them twice as much as I had originally quoted. Moral of the story: Do not give a firm price until you fully understand what will be involved. People have a tendency to change the plan and want to add things at the last minute!

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider if you choose to take commissions based on photo references. The best art is always done with the best photos. If you’re a photographer, I recommend doing a photo shoot yourself because you have the artistic eye and know what you need. If not, always tell your client what you need, and don’t be afraid to say no if the photos just aren’t good enough. The worst thing you can do is to go ahead and work from inadequate photographs. Your art is only as good as the photos you use!

I hope this helps!
I wish a very artistic and creative New Year to you all, and I’m looking forward to being your guide for many more years!
Happy 2017!

Lee Hammond has been called the Queen of Drawing. That may not be fair these days, since in addition to providing the best drawing lessons, she has also created fantastic books and videos filled with the same easy to follow acrylic painting techniques, colored pencil techniques and more. Click here to see all of the instructional books and DVDs that Lee Hammond has to offer!

Watch the video: 3 STEPS TO INSTANTLY FIND YOUR STYLE. NEVER draw from IMAGINATION! (August 2022).